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26 May 2020

Social media at work?

Dr Ali Budjanovcanin, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology and Public Sector Management

It’s not just what you say but the way you say it… via an app.

A man sends a like on social media
Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

With the sudden fallout from the Covid-19 crisis came an onslaught of ‘how to’ guides and best practice pieces devoted to maximising homeworking for those of us who have traded a desk in an office for a desk at home. But a vast swathe of the British workforce has been furloughed in response to the effects of the virus, particularly in sectors like hospitality and retail, making contact with their employers difficult. Even when more industries start to stage a fragile return to work, canteens and social hubs will be quieter, if not closed. Daily ‘whole-team’ stand-up meetings will be smaller, and training events and other gatherings that can be vital touch-points for non desk-based workers are likely to be postponed indefinitely. For some leaders, workplace social media could become a key leadership tool during the immediate crisis and beyond.

Hospitality and retail are two examples of industries where the vast majority of the workforce are physically remote from senior leadership and other non-frontline colleagues and cannot be reached by email or video conferencing during their busy customer-facing working days. My colleague Dr Wei-Ning Yang and I have been conducting research on e-leadership or leading via technology in these industries over the last 8 months. We have been exploring how leaders of deskless workforces use social media and messaging as part of their leadership toolkit, something Yapster – a workplace messaging app organisation – call ‘social leadership’. Collaborating with Yapster we’ve been examining how the characteristics of enterprise social media affect the ways leaders are able to influence their teams, a question that will grow in importance in an age where communication in the workplace will increasingly be mediated by technology.

How does social leadership add value?

Early findings suggest that the accessibility and visibility of leaders allowed by enterprise social media can have an impact on employees’ attitudes and subsequently on the customer experience. This is crucial to profitability in service industry settings where the frontline worker is so fundamental to customer satisfaction and loyalty.

The leaders in our research suggest that social media helps them to develop and maintain a company culture that is centred around service to customers and to fellow employees. It enables them to reinforce the service-orientated values of the organisation through the posting of good practice on news feeds that can reach the whole workforce and the celebration of individuals who are living the brand and its values. But it also serves to provide a community and sense of belonging for employees. As some commentators highlight, social networks fill the “humanity gap” that many workers feel in “cold, impersonal email chains and conference calls”. Deskless workers in many service industries don’t even have the benefit of those impersonal email chains.

The accessibility that enterprise social media provides also leads to skip level leadership – the ability for frontline employees to have visibility of and access to their senior leaders – albeit online. This can help break down the layers of hierarchy between frontline staff and leaders at all levels of the organisation, and enhances the community felt by employees, as more senior leaders are far less distant than in similar organisations without such technology. Frontline staff may feel more heard by those at the top, while senior leaders gain access to the ‘coal face’. One Managing Director told us “you can get a real feel for mood” even without being able to visit frontline staff in person.

Social leadership during the Covid-19 crisis

During the Covid-19 crisis, we are seeing that social leaders are able to leverage apps to reach their furloughed employees and maintain the morale of staff who are not currently in the workplace. Wendy Bartlett, Executive Chairman at Bartlett Mitchell, a social leader herself, describes how during the pandemic, the use of Yapster has meant that employees still feel connected despite being furloughed. She sees it as crucial for maintaining the sense of belonging and support that many employees currently desperately need. It also provides the opportunity for consistent, transparent and real time communication during an uncertain time – something that is known to improve employee attitudes and outcomes.

As our research is finding, used consistently and effectively, enterprise social media as a communication medium has unique characteristics that can really enhance the role of a leader – both during and outside of a crisis.

In this story

Alexandra Budjanovcanin

Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Sector Management

Wei-Ning Yang

Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour

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